White Man’s Footprint: The Cure Grows Close to the Wound
I was chatting with a friend recently who told me that the best cure for poison ivy (that he had ever found) was in the juices of the jewelweed, commonly found growing right beside poison ivy. This reminded me of something that was shared in my Natural Therapeutics class, by the founder of our school. He shared with us the idea that the cure for any ailment or disease can be found within a ten mile radius of where the afflicted person lives. This train of thought naturally led me to contemplating my favorite weed, the benevolent and humble plantain herb.
I first discovered wild plantain after a friend and neighbor introduced me to it. Soon, I was spotting it everywhere. Along the rocky trails at Stephenson Preserve, in between cracks of pavement, in our community garden at work. It grows just about everywhere in this country. The little plant was prolific, and yet so humble and hidden I had never noticed it until it was pointed out to me.
I was told that it was a great remedy for insect bites and minor skin wounds of all kinds, which I soon discovered to be true after I applied some to my burning ankles after standing too close to a fire ant mound.
Later through my own research I discovered that it was also edible and nutritious, especially the young leaves, and that the Native Americans called the plant “White Man’s Footprint,” since it seemed to show up in areas that the white settlers invaded. Plantain seems to pop up most often in “disturbed soils,” areas that have been ploughed and trampled: a response of nature to the wounds created by man.
Upon reading Braiding Sweetgrass (a book I emphatically recommend to everyone), I was reminded again about of the wisdom of this humble little weed:
“Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so that native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regard to limits. But Plantain is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but ‘naturalized.’ This is the same term we use for the foreign-born when they become citizens in our country.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
I can only hope that we can learn from this little plant, how to become native to a place by our reverence, our curiosity, and our eagerness to help heal the places that have been disturbed, while remaining humble and persistent. It is my sincerest hope that we as a nation begin doing this often quiet work so that we can be proud of the footsteps we create, and leave this world better than we found it. It may well be that the cure to what ails us is already there, under our feet, growing in the cracks rent by the problem.